Keith Johnson stood outside the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter in downtown Atlanta on Friday unsure of what he would do when it closes later this summer.
Wearing an old Benjamin Hayes High School football T-shirt and sweatpants with a bag slung over his shoulder, Johnson, 58, said he’s used the shelter off and on for 15 years.
He said he watched people with mental health issues struggle in a place with a population that could sometimes swell to as many as 500. He said he saw what he alleges were drug deals and pointed to bullet holes on a door and window he said occurred after arguments in the building.
“No matter what happened, it’s probably a good thing they shut it down,” he said. “This place holds people back. It’s a good thing.”
After almost a decade of litigation and years of battles with the business community and city leaders, the city's largest homeless shelter will close its doors at the end of August.
Now the big challenge is to find the hundreds who bed there a new place to shelter and to help them get on their feet, officials said.
Jack Harden, co-chairman of the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Regional Commission on Homelessness, said case workers will begin visiting the shelter soon to determine best strategies to help.
Some of the shelter’s clients, he said, will go to other emergency shelters. But the commission hopes to place many in supportive or permanent housing or find transitional programs that offer shelter with other forms of help, such as substance abuse counseling.
“These strategies will be different than moving people to some other place that they can just hang out at forever,” he said.
Fulton Commission Chairman John Eaves said the county plans to reopen its Jefferson Place shelter at at Jefferson Place and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. That facility, which was closed in 2014, may be able to handle as many as 200 to 250 people.
“The only way this thing really works is if the people at Peachtree and Pine have somewhere to go,” said Eaves, who is running to replace Kasim Reed as Atlanta’s next mayor. “Whenever the Peachtree and Pine facility closes, we will be ready.”
The fate of Peachtree-Pine’s 100,000-foot-building, however, has not yet been determined. Central Atlanta Progress, a group that promotes business growth downtown, will take possession of the building after Aug. 28 when the last of the shelter’s clients are expected to leave.
Wilma Sothern, vice president of marketing for CAP, said plans for the building have not been finalized as the focus has been on making sure all of Peachtree-Pine’s clients have found the right fit for their needs.
The closure of Peachtree-Pine was put in place Wednesday after The Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, which operated the shelter, settled a lawsuit seeking to shutter the building at the corner of Peachtree and Pine streets. The group settled the lawsuit for a reported $9.7 million.
On Friday, the Task Force sought to make sure homeless advocates know it will continue to fight to end homelessness.
“The settlement to which the Task Force has agreed will provide substantial financial resources to continue our two-fold mission of providing direct homeless services and advocating for policies and programs that attack the underlying causes of homelessness,” Task Force Chairman Chuck Steffen said in a statement on Friday.
“These are the lack of affordable housing, the shortage of living-wage jobs, and the history of racism that blocks access to both housing and jobs,” he said.
Peachtree-Pine founder Anita Beaty, who tirelessly fought to keep the facility open and was both hero and villain depending on your viewpoint, said Friday she was disappointed the task force settled. She alleged that the city and others harassed the shelter for years to force it to move, including methodically blocking funding to make operating it tougher
“I think it’s really tragic and sad,” Beaty, who retired in January, said of the closing. “I had prayed and hoped this would go to court so we could tell our story.”
That story, she said, included thousands of heroic volunteers who supported the mission through donations, preparing food for clients and holding steady against critics who believed the operation was flawed.
On the other hand, Peachtree-Pine faced an eminent domain threat from the city, tuberculosis outbreaks on three different occasions and risked having its water shut off for non-payment of about $600,000 in unpaid water bills. Those back water payments were paid by an unnamed donor.
Business and community leaders complained of the legions of men who wandered around the facility on some of Atlanta’s most prominent streets as they waited to get in. The facility’s location near churches that offered food also made it a central spot for the homeless community.
Roberta Stutzman, curator at the Peachtree-Pine Art Gallery next to the shelter, said she was supportive of her neighbor’s mission. Peachtree-Pine gave the men dignity because it lacked the rules that tried to put them in a box or had a one-size fits all approach to help those in need.
Stutzman painted portraits of many of the shelter’s clients and when finished would print a couple copies for the subject to share with family.
Closing Peachtree-Pine’s doors won’t solve the problem of homelessness, she said.
“We have all these resources and we can’t fix it,” she said of homelessness, “So how are [the homeless people] supposed to fix it? Just putting them in an apartment won’t help.”
Staff writer Arielle Kass contributed to this article.
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